A female professor led an Islamic prayer service Friday with men in the congregation despite sharp criticism from Muslim religious leaders in the Middle East who complained that it violated centuries of tradition.
Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, led the service at Synod House at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, an Episcopal church in Manhattan.
Some Islamic scholars have said they were aware of a few other mixed-gender prayer meetings led by women, mostly in the West, but they are rare.
“The issue of gender equality is a very important one in Islam, and Muslims have unfortunately used highly restrictive interpretations of history to move backward,” Wadud said before the service. “With this prayer service we are moving forward. This single act is symbolic of the possibilities within Islam.”
About 80 to 100 people attended the service, and the group appeared evenly divided between men and women. Most women wore the traditional Muslim headscarf and long, flowing robes.
The event was meant to draw attention to the inequality for women in Muslim spiritual life and Muslim life in general, said Asra Q. Nomani, an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter who is the lead organizer of the prayer.
“We are standing up for our rights as women in Islam. We will no longer accept the back door or the shadows,” Nomani said. “At the end of the day, we’ll be leaders in the Muslim world.”
There was a brief outburst from some protesters outside the building at the start of the service, but they were kept from entering by a heavy police presence. One young U.S.-born, bearded activist, who only gave his name as Nussrah, said Wadud was not representative of Muslims.
'Tarnishing the whole Islamic faith'
“She is tarnishing the whole Islamic faith,” he said.
Some critics have accused Nomani of using the event to publicize a book she has written about women and Islam.
Three New York mosques had refused to host the service, Nomani said. It was moved to Synod House after a site that had earlier been selected for the service, an art gallery, received a bomb threat.
The call to prayer was led by an American Muslim of Egyptian descent, Suehyla el-Attar, who spoke in accented Arabic and didn’t wear the traditional headscarf.
Organizers said the service wasn’t meant as a protest against Muslim traditions.
“It was always meant as a spiritual worship opportunity, and it’s doing so in an equal space for women and men,” said Ahmed Nassef, whose group Muslim WakeUp! helped to organize the service.
“It’s not about telling other Muslims how they should worship,” Nassef said. “We just need to be open to new ideas.”
Yvonne Haddad, a professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, said the service goes against the religion’s traditions.
“It’s a time when people can get away with anything,” Haddad said. “When people have a breakdown of traditional leadership, largely because the U.S. government has delegitimized the Muslim leadership in America, American Muslims are searching for new leaders more able to address their daily needs.
American Muslims 'on the margins of the faith'
“People in America think they are going to be the vanguards of change,” Haddad said. “But for Arab Muslims in the Middle East, American Muslims continue to be viewed on the margins of the faith.”
The sheik of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, one of the world’s top Islamic institutions, said Islam permits women to lead other women in prayer but not a congregation with men in it.
“A woman’s body is private,” Sheik Sayed Tantawi wrote in a column in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram in which he was asked about Wadud’s planned prayer. “When she leads men in prayer, in this case, it’s not proper for them to look at the woman whose body is in front of them. Even if they see it in their daily life, it shouldn’t be in situations of worship, where the main point is humility and modesty.”
Abdul-Aziz al-Khayyat, a former minister of religious affairs in Jordan and a Muslim cleric, also said it would be forbidden under Islamic doctrine, and that the prayers of men who participated would not count.
“Prophet Muhammad and all the scholars did not allow the woman to lead ... mixed congregations, not even to allow her to pray at the side of the man,” al-Khayyat said. “She can only pray behind him.”